Is film a useful way to showcase research?

Matthew Reisz examines the pros and cons of using film as a form of public engagement

November 10, 2016
People walking in Greenland for Sara Penrhyn Jones' film Timeline
Go with the floe: Sara Penrhyn Jones describes her film Timeline (see video, below) as ‘a dystopian journey...through Greenland’s melting landscapes’

How do people interact in public spaces? What role does food play in different religious traditions? How can coastal communities cope with accelerated climate change? What happens to Taiwanese pop music as it spreads through different communities? And how far can artistic projects help ex-addicts to recover?

These are the themes of the five shortlisted films in the “Utopia” category of this year’s Research in Films Awards, organised by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. The aim of the awards, whose winners will be announced at a ceremony on 10 November, is to “showcase, reward and recognise the best of the large and increasing number of high-quality short films…produced as outputs or by-products of arts and humanities research”.

According to the AHRC’s multimedia editor, Emi Spinner, the funder has seen “a marked increase in the number of films being used as a means to both disseminate and engage audiences with research” in recent years. In 2005, only 20 researchers listed film or animation as an “artistic or creative output” of their AHRC-funded research. By 2013, she says, that number had jumped to 149.

Some of the shortlisted films in the AHRC awards – three of which were funded by the research council itself – track the journeys taken by the researchers themselves. Others present powerfully contentious arguments, or distil research results into intense visual form. But all make two things very clear. First, whatever reputation arts and humanities research has for trading in the minutiae of obscure topics, at least some of it deals with issues of very broad human interest. Second, film can be a highly effective way of making such research accessible to a wide, non-specialist audience. In principle, as soon as a film is put up on a website or on YouTube, it can reach thousands of people who would never read an expensive monograph or a paper in a specialist journal. And, although AHRC-funded projects include a range of “artistic and creative outputs”, it seems reasonable to assume that more researchers can teach themselves the rudiments of film-making than will want to use media such as ceramics, dance or textiles – also eligible for AHRC funding – to raise public awareness of their research.

Nonetheless, there are also some obvious challenges in using film as a form of public engagement. One was highlighted at a recent event organised by the UK’s Political Studies Association, where academics were able to pitch ideas for programmes to commissioning editors working in television and radio. What the professionals kept stressing was the need to define an audience and think about the medium as well as the message. (They also politely implied that some people just don’t have the personality to be effective presenters.) Those who go off and make films on their own may not take sufficient account of these points. And since they don’t have an institution such as the BBC to do their marketing for them, their films can languish unseen simply because no one outside their scholarly community gets to hear about them, or because no one beyond the academy finds them engaging. And this also, of course, raises questions about how cost-effective film might be compared with other forms of public engagement. Even if there is scope for film to play a much greater role in knowledge transfer and public engagement, how could funders ascertain whether the impact justified the expense?

Different funders around the world give different levels of prominence to public engagement, but, even within that domain, few appear to assign a major role to film.

The Australian Research Council, which funds all disciplines outside the medical sciences in Australia, “supports the cost for researchers to publish and disseminate outputs from their funded projects”, including “non-traditional research outputs”, such as “films and other creative works”. However, it has no “systems in place for assessing the cost-effectiveness of films compared with other forms of public engagement”. Furthermore, the body allows researchers themselves to “determine the most appropriate output type that is most relevant to communicating the outcomes of their research” and has not “measured how this differs between specific disciplines, or science and humanities more generally”.



In the US, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute does not support public engagement through film at all. The National Science Foundation’s assessment criteria for grant applications include broader social impacts, which could include films. But, in reality, requests for funding to make such a film “would occur in a very small percentage of awards” and would not constitute a “significant element of funding requested”, according to Valentine Kass, programme director for advancing informal STEM learning at the NSF.

The National Endowment for the Humanities does sometimes incorporate a public engagement element into its larger grants, according to its public affairs specialist Christopher Flynn, but “films are rare and usually not the main method of public engagement”. Commoner are “websites giving access to back-end information or summaries of the project” and “public events such as discussion series, lectures or presentations at libraries, colleges and schools”.

Meanwhile, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds research in science, technology and economics, offers a separate funding stream for its extensive efforts in public understanding of science. But, importantly, these focus on boosting understanding of science in general, rather than the specific research projects the foundation funds. According to Doron Weber, vice president for programmes, the foundation’s attempts to “engage a new generation” with science include “supporting six film schools”, as well as offering book grants to authors, “commissioning hundreds of new plays” and even occasionally helping to finance operas and musicals that tell striking scientific stories.

Weber is fascinated, for instance, by the story of the self-taught Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, who became a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1917, and tried for many years to get a film of his life off the ground. He eventually succeeded last year, with the release of Matthew Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity. John Adams’ 2005 opera Doctor Atomic, about Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, also received support from the foundation.

The Wellcome Trust, the London-based biomedical research charity (which also supports many projects in the medical humanities), sometimes offers researchers additional funding for public engagement aimed at supporting what a spokeswoman describes as “debate and discussion, rather than PR or dissemination”. This could include film where the making of it is a “collaborative process through which non-specialist public audiences are involved in the production (and therefore take part in a discussion around the content)”, or where the film itself is “used as a tool to facilitate dialogue”.

A spokeswoman for the umbrella organisation Research Councils UK notes that a wide spectrum of British research councils have schemes to provide funding to researchers for public engagement outputs such as films. She thinks it likely – but is unable to verify – that films are a more common output of arts and humanities projects.

The AHRC has itself made films to accompany two major recent exhibitions: Ming: 50 Years that Changed China at the British Museum, and Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy at the British Library. In both cases, suggests Spinner, the films “do not simply offer highlights of the exhibition” but explore “how AHRC-funded academic research underpins these exhibitions. They ask: What research questions are being answered in the planning of such projects? What new and exciting discoveries have been made? Experts from what disciplines have been brought together? [Such films] offer a real insight into the research process, which is all too often invisible to the public in major exhibitions.”

The AHRC does not have a marketing budget for such films, let alone for those made by individual researchers. But Spinner does not see this as a problem: “We find the best way to promote films is via social media – if a film is visually rich, relevant, timely, accessible and shared on the correct channels, the audience tends to build quite quickly.” She says that the AHRC’s own YouTube channel has had more than 400,000 views since it was set up in 2009, with more than 1.4 million minutes of AHRC footage viewed. She notes that some of the shortlisted films in this year’s awards have already had “tens of thousands of views”.

Sharing platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, Spinner goes on, also “allow you to monitor closely the number of views each film you post receives. By evaluating these figures you can easily compare the cost with other forms of public engagement, [such as] a print or digital magazine.”



Nonetheless, she regards viewing numbers as far from the only relevant criterion of success, since films can also be used in teaching, to leverage further funding, to pitch research to journalists, to inform government policymaking or to encourage community participation in research.

Within these broad parameters of policy and funding, what motivated some of the researchers now up for awards to adopt film as a means of public engagement?

Roman Gerodimos, principal lecturer in global current affairs at Bournemouth University, is responsible for At the Edge of the Present (see video, above), which he describes as his “personal vision for what cities are, how we engage with each other and what public spaces should do”.

He turned to film, he says, partly out of “frustration with the academic cycle – both the timeframe of getting a project from conception to print…and the very limited and almost incestuous audience that conventional academic outputs get. [Peer-reviewed publication is] not necessarily the most efficient way to contribute to important debates and it’s certainly not a good way to engage anyone outside academia.”

Gerodimos has made films before. They were “developed in parallel with more conventional outputs” not merely to “showcase previous research” but to present new material, “or take the subject further, or remix the material in ways that combine art and research”. The challenge is to present a narrative that is “informed and sophisticated enough for experts” to find valuable, while also allowing “lay” viewers to “identify issues [and] thoughts…they care about”.

Sara Penrhyn Jones, research fellow in the department of film and media at Bath Spa University, describes her film Timeline as “a dystopian journey…through Greenland’s melting landscapes, Britain’s eroding coastlines and the low-lying nation Kiribati” looking for “hope in post-normal times”.

Despite a tendency for film to be “seen as an output that almost mechanically acts as a loudspeaker for research findings that will be generated in more traditional ways”, Jones wanted to find “a different and more human way to communicate climate change that would resonate more deeply with an apparently indifferent general public”. She is delighted to have “received very personal messages from people – almost all women – who have been touched by the film”.

Her main concern, Jones continues, was neither to reach the largest possible audience nor to produce an activist film, which inevitably brings “a pressure to be ‘on message’, focused on real or imagined enemies”. Instead, her “driving ambition was creative and political: how do we find our own voice, from peripheral places and positions, to express our innermost, authentic feelings about climate change?”

She admits that the impact of research films “may not always be immediately obvious”, but she thinks they can “strengthen and forge new networks across the world”.

“Just making a film provides a reason for people to get in touch and share ideas and expertise, which can be very productive in itself,” she says. “I really do believe that a well-made film can shift the debate just by reaching the right specialist networks, as well as a general audience.”

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Print headline: Lights, camera, research

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